One can argue — and I have — the Seattle Mariners have needs up and down the roster, despite winning 89 games in 2018.
The numbers will suggest starting pitching and outfield prodiction lead the way, but more specifically, GM Jerry Dipoto‘s club needs impact starting pitching, an everyday centerfielder and right-handed power.
As a whole, where do the free agent options rank?
Note 1: The following is not a ranking of how good the players are or the Mariners interest, it’s a ranking of how they fit the club, projecting roster and salary impact, with trade and free agent market considerations such as supply and demand.
Note 2: Multiple sources have indicated RHP Charlie Morton is approaching free agency as if it’s World Series or bust, and two have suggested he only wants to play in Houston or he may retire. As a result, I have left off Morton from the following rankings. Initially, he ranked No. 13.
BOOTH: The Astros & Free Agency
BOOTH: Astros Pitching Pursuit
Note 3: Free agency is impacted by other roster moves, including trades, extensions, injuries, and many other factors. The status below could change for players based on a single move. For example, if Michael Brantley is re-signed by Cleveland, the market for similarly-valuable outfielders may change, depending on interest and the precedence Brantley’s contract may set.
Another; if CC Sabathia decides to play in 2019 (at this point the expectation is he’s done) it changes the market for back-end starters a bit. All it takes is one club to go nuts or a blockbuster trade to occur and the market is altered significantly. Keep that in mind as the winter unfolds.
1. Andrew McCutchen, LF
McCutchen is nowhere near the MVP candidate he was 3-4 years ago, but hit enough in 2018 to suggest anything under three years guaranteed makes some sense.
He’s not a centerfielder anymore — and really was never that good out there anyway — but he’s fine in a corner and brings tons of intangibles to the table to help a club get over the hump.
Seattle could use a reliable right-handed bat and despite the fact he’s a name, I don’t see McCutchen’s market getting out of hand.
2. Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
Kikuchi, 28, has been a flamethrower in Japan and can still reach the mid-90s, but he’s using his full arsenal more rather than trying to blow the doors off every hitter, and that may bode well for his career in MLB.
He’s had some shoulder problems thanks to poor arm action — it’s mostly an arm lag (timing) — but he also lands on a stiff front leg that impacts his command and finish.
At the bottom of his delivery, his hand — and the ball — disappears below his backside. Seriously. Look.
I suspect even at 91-94 mph he has a terrific chance to succed in the states, thanks to deception, solid-average command and three offspeed pitches (slider, splitter, short curveball) that play.
He’s athletic and has shown he understands how to use his stuff.
The trio of scouts I’ve spoke to that have seen Kikuchi suggest he’s got No. 2 stuff , but the shoulder concerns are likely to suppress his market a bit. A clean health history and better mechanics and we’d be talking about the top free agent starter on the market this winter.
As-is, he’s probably going to get three years or more at No. 3 starter AAV with upside in the contract that equal his on-field ceiling, and it’s probably a risk worth taking for the Mariners.
3. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Yep, you read that right. While LeMahieu is far from a star and doesn’t even have that kind of upside at 30 years of age, he’s ideal for the Mariners as a player still with a few prime years left and few glaring weaknesses.
One argument against such a player coming from a career at Coors Field is the home-road splits. Not only is that a terrible way to assess a player’s ability to hit outside Coors, but LeMahieu’s value isn’t balled up into his offensive production, despite being an imposing 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds.
A former shortstop, LeMahieu has clung well to second base defensively, and his presence at the position fully opens the door for Robinson Cano to play primarily first base and Dee Gordon to be used as the utility option his bat strongly suggests he should be (salary be damned, this is what he is).
LeMahieu also shouldn’t be very expensive, and the fact he hits the fastball well and isn’t simply a guess hitter gives him a chance to be an average or better offensive 2B to go with the above-average defense.
In a scenario where LeMahieu, who has been a two-win player three of the last four seasons (was a 4.4 fWAR player in 2016, clearly an outlier) is in the fold, Gordon gets most of the PAs give to Andrew Romine, Taylor Motter, Ichiro, John Andreoli, Zach Vincej and Kris Negron in 2018 (231 PAs combined) rather than those lesser players getting them, and instead of handing Gordon another 588 trips to the plate as a regular.
Like with all acquisitions, the cost will dictate, but this is under-the-radar type target that could pay dividends for multiple roster spots.
4. Lance Lynn, RHP
Lynn could be one of the bigger bargains on the market this winter if what he showed after his trade to the Yankees (9 GS, 2.17 FIP, 61 SO, 14 BB) was real, and there’s reason to buy it is, considering he did it with a different fastball approach and the results aren’t based on randomness.
Lynn is 31, is entering Year 3 after Tommy John surgery and has a career 3.67 FIP and above-average strikeout rate. He’s also shown an ability to generate ground ball outs enough to stave off the long ball problem many others haven’t.
There’s a good chance he’s back to STL form as a No. 3 starter with a full workload available.
In other words, Mike Leake.
5. Matt Harvey, RHP
Harvey was discussed by media and fans alike last summer but the Reds held onto him. Why? I have no idea, but there’s a non-zero chance they bring him back.
Harvey is another upside play but I’m not sure clubs aren;t going to buy some of that upside, rather than be rewarded with it. He’s a Scott Boras client and one that comes with a very high opinion of how good he WILL BE.
Still, he’s very intriguing. He’ll be 30 in March and improved his strikeout rates this season to 20 percent after that dipped to 15.6% in 2017. At his best, Harvey was striking out a quarter of the batters he faced and while that might never return, he;s also throwing more strikes than ever and avoiding the base on balls.
He still throws hard — 94.6 average fastball in 2018 — and his slider was pretty good with the Reds. If he can get back some of the fringe changeup he had in his prime or find the better version of his curveball, he may have a better shot to go deeper into games and supply No. 3 value.
If I’m the Mariners I want my pitching coach to come to me and say “hey, I know Harvey’s history and have a plan that kicks his game up a notch, let’s go get him” or I’m probably stopping at two years and a relatively low guaranteed number, which likely eliminates a club from contention. But with such a plan, I’d have more confidence I can get some upside in a contract he might actually take.
6. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP
I’ve been told the Boston Red Sox plan to re-up with Eovaldi on a multi-year deal, so he may never get out to talk with other clubs.
If that does not occur, he will be a sought after commodity, despite some warts, incouding injury history — he has had two Tommy John surgeries and the second time around, late in 2016, he had his flexor tendon worked on, too.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old also has some performance concerns to go along with the durability issues. Over the course of his 148-start career, he’s posted a solid but not special 3.82 FIP.
But despite not being the best starting pitcher on the open market, he’s exactly the kind of option Dipoto and the Mariners should be after. Here’s why:
Eovaldi has the raw stuff to dominate at times and essentially is a right-handed James Paxton..
While he’s not going to be cheap, per se, he’s also not likely to receive the kind of offers left-hander Patrick Corbin is expected to, a market that could reach or exceed Yu Darvish (6 years, $126 million) territory. If the bidding gets to this range for Eovaldi, Seattle will likely be, and should be, out of the running, assuming the player would have any interest in the first place.
Eovaldi has shown this fall he’s versatile, pitching out of the bullpen in between starts for the Red Sox in the postseason. This strongly suggests a very high floor as a multi-inning reliever, reducing the risk of a relatively aggressive contract.
Side Note: I wrote this the morning before Nathan Eovaldi’s relief heroics in Game 3 of the World Series. I’m not sure if that game helped his free agent cause or hurt it, considering the way some FOs assess risk, but I imagine it helped his cause and hurt a mid-market club’s shot to pry him away from the kind of team and winning atmosphere he’s now experienced. Prior to that game, Eovaldi ranked No. 1 on this list.
I’ve heard anything from 3/$40m to 5/$75m. The lower range makes some sense, the upper one does not. Not for Seattle, anyway.
7. Jesse Chavez, RHP
Chavez is the most underappreciated (by media, fans) arm on the market right now. He’s 35, pounds the zone (3.4% walk rate) and just posted a career-best 24.4% strikeout rate. He covered 95 innings in 2018 without making a single start and was the Cubs best reliever late in the year.
He can spot start if need be, has no discernable splits and his five-pitch mix is legit — 4FB, CUT, SL, CB, CH — even if his changeup is inconsistent and fringey.
Despite the fact many clubs will have strong interest, Chavez’s age probably keeps the years down to two, maybe three for an aggressive front office.
Chavez is a multi-inning middle reliever that fits well in a new-age bullpen, aiding clubs with less impact and depth in their rotation.
8. J.A. Happ, LHP
Happ, 36, is a reliable, league-average starter that gets by without a plus offspeed pitch thanks to how much value he gets from a 91-93 mph fastball he commands very well and some deception in his delivery.
His slider was as effective as ever in 2018 and his changeup is useful, but he’s throwing the curveball less every year since 2014 — usage rates of 10%, 7.4%, 5.3% and 1.7%.
Happ is probably due a multi-year deal, though I’d steer clear of a guaranteed third year if we’re talking north of $10 million AAV — and most likely we are.
9. Derek Holland, LHP
Holland, now 32, had a pretty solid 2018 in San Francisco, logging 171 1/3 innings and posting a 3.87 FIP. He also struck out 23.3% of the batters he faced, missed bats on 10% of swings and stayed healthy.
There’s some risk here, but Holland, who sat 90-94 mph with his fastball last season, is a clear and present upgrade to at least one spot in the Mariners’ rotation. If it matters, he’s also been around a lot of winning and winners, and a lot of very successful pitching minds.
Holland should be cheap on guaranteed dollars and short on years. He also pushes Hernandez to the bullpen — even though that’s not a fix for King Felix without drastic changes this winter.
10. Adam Ottavino, RHP
Ottavino, somehow, is 34 now, and he comes with an injury history on top of 40-grade command, but he sits 93-96 to go with a plus slider and a cutter. His sinker has enough movement to keep batters from sitting dead red when they see backspin and he’s coming off a strong 2018.
Clubs are going to both love Ottavino — he’s nasty, leading to a 36% strikeout rate — and question his consistency and availability, which likely limits the upside on his market.
He’s unlikely to get more than two years, but should surpass the deal Juan Nicasio received a year ago from Seattle, at least in AAV.
11. Anibal Sanchez, RHP
Sanchez has done nothing but prove people wrong for years, starting with his trade from Miami to Detroit. He’s not without his warts — he’s 35 in February, has battled arm injuries and never logged 200 innings in a season — but he just popped a 2.4 fWAR in 136 2/3 innings for the Braves and doled out a 3.62 FIP.
His velocity is fine at 90-92 mph, he’s throwing a lot of cutters these days and doing it with tons of success (.195 BAA, .329 SLGA) and his swinging strike rate is still very playable at 10.5 percent.
Sanchez likely has hit the portion of his career where he’s going to get a series of one-year offers, but there might be a few teams willing to go two years and Seattle should be one of them if the guaranteed dollars aren’t out of whack, and it’s difficult to believe that will be the case.
The Mariners, BTW, paid Ramirez $4.2 million this past season knowing he was a health AND performance risk. Sanchez is only one of those. If he’s healthy, he’ll give you quality innings — something Hernandez hasn’t done much of the last three seasons.
12. Patrick Corbin, LHP
Despite likely being too pricey for Seattle to compete, Corbin ranks this high because he’s far and away the best starter on the market and the Mariners’ biggest need is impact arms in the rotation.
He’s had some injury issues in the past but at 29 just tossed his second 200-inning campaign and has less wear and tear than most 29-year-old starters (945.2 IP).
I’ve seen some projections of 5/$90m for Corbin, but I believe he’s going to get Yu Darvish dollars (6 years, $126 million), or more.
With the Yankees and perhaos the Dodgers, Nationals, Angels and Cubs also in the mix, the Mariners aren’t likely to compete.
But if they decided to compete in free agency, Corbin fits and his presence in the rotation changes everything for the club’s pitching staff and the roster. Even as-is on November 4, 2018, adding corbin would make for a projectable Wild Card contender just a few pieces from legitimacy the club hasn’t warranted in nearly two decades.
If the ownership wants to flip the script, Corbin is the way to do it. Not only would they be adding a significant, star-level piece to their weakest unit, they’d be taking that piece from an elite-market club, perhaps sending them scrambling to make a trade.
13. David Robertson, RHP
Robertson’s age (34 in April) may scare some away but he’s still very good, albeit not as dominant as he was a few years ago.
He’s still missing bat at a high rate — 32.2% in 2018 — with a 92 mph cutter and a plus to plus-plus curveball. He has a true slider he mixes in about 8-10% of the time.
Robertson is a terific idea for a team like Seattle, since at 34 Robertson isn’t likely to command more than three years, perhaps just two guaranteed. But I’d trust him, which is why he ranks this high.
14. Michael Brantley, LF
Brantley, in theory, is the best fit of any outfielder on this list because he’s the best player of the group. He’s also going to have tons of suitors and likely to get more years and dollars than likely will make sense for Seattle, especially considering Brantley’s recent dealings with the DL.
Brantley is essentially a younger, better version of Denard Span, and Span was solid for the club a year ago. If the Mariners decide it’s a go-for-it 2019 before they strongly consider tearing it down (big if on both fronts), Brantley makes a lot of sense to strongly consider paying.
15. Kelvin Herrera, RHP
Herrera, 29 in December, has seen his strikeout rate drop from 30.4% in 2016 to 21.6% in ’17 and 20.7% in 2018, which explains his BABIP numbers and ultimately his drop in value.
He’s also had some availability issues the past two years.
Herrera, however, still throws hard and might be willing to sign a one-year deal to prove he still can be dominant and get a multi-year deal next winter. In that scenario, Seattle makes sense. If he’s your fourth reliever to start the season you’re probably in good shape.
16. Jeurys Familia, RHP
Familia is the most intriguing reliever on this year’s market for me, from a Mariners perspective.
He’s going to want closer money and he may get it. He’s 29 and coming off a 2.65 FIP, 27.5% strikeout 2018, his second-best by fWAR.
He’ll still run into occasional control problems, but it appears he’s getting better at avoiding barrels as he ages and there’s no sign his velocity is going anywhere anytime soon (97 mph in 2018).
Familia has a plus slider, average split and is probably one of the safer bets among the top relievers this offseason. I’d much prefer to give three or four years and $15-20 million per season on Familia than Craig Kimbrel.
For Seattle, they’d have to be very aggressive in terms of dollars to acquire Familia, but if they’re going to spend big on the bullpen this is the guy.
17. Edwin Jackson, RHP
Jackson rebounded in Oakland and pitched like a mid-rotation arm at times. He ended the year with a 4.65 FIP after his run ended and some warts reemerged — command, control.
Jackson is more of a back-end option, but he’s one with some upside. I’d like to see him use his fastball a little more — 18% in 2018 — and perhaps throw fewer offspeed pitches. He has the makings of a FB-cutter combo that can take pressure off the changeup, slider and curveball.
A multi-inning bullpen role on a good team is an ideal role for Jackson, but he can be expected to cover a No. 5 spot in the rotation, and there is some upside here, despite the right-hander having just turned 35.
18. Jed Lowrie, IF
I’ve wanted Lowrie for years because he;’s versatile, smart and knows how to hide his weaknesses at the plate. He’s 35 now but still worth two-year deal. Problem is, there are many who believe he can get 3/$30 and that’s a lot for a player I’d be hoping to play 100-110 games at three or four positions, rather than everyday.
The good news is, if Seattle isn’t a legit landing spot — probably not — Lowrie may have also priced himself out of Oakland.
Lowrie, on a two-year deal, would rank higher here, but I see better opportunities for a super-utility type considering the resources.
19. David Phelps, RHP
Phelps missed all of 2018 after having Tommy John last spring but could be ready early in ’19 if not from the outset. The injury and surgery suppress Phelps’ market a bit but teams are going to be interested in some guaranteed dollars plus incentives for Phelps to make a full-market salary next season.
Seattle should be interested in supplementing their Alex-Colome-Edwin Diaz back end with arms like Phelps and he may end up a bargain if his recovery and rehab have gone well.
20. Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Keuchel may be somewhat overlooked in free agency — overshadowed by Corbin and even Eovaldi — but he made 34 starts in 2018 and posted a 3.69 FIP. He countered a drop in strikeouts — 17.5% down from three straight years over 20% — by doing a better job keeping the ball in the ballpark.
Doing so with significantly lower ground ball rates — 54% down from a career mark over 60% to start the season — suggests some luck.
But Keuchel’s xWOBA was .290, in line with 2017’s .286 and better than his career mark of .317 prior to the season. He does a good job avoiding the barrel — 4.5% barrel rate in 2018, down from 5.1% in 2017; 3.4% his Cy Young season in 2015 — and tallied 204 2/3 innings, the second-highest total in his career.
He’s 30, so any idea of a six or eight year contract for $20m AAV is probably too steep for anyone not in an elite market, but I’ve seen some 5/$90m projections and I’d be comfortable if Seattle went down that road, considering there seem to be no signs of physical decline by Keuchel.
I expect the Angels to be all over Keuchel (and Corbin).
21. Cody Allen, RHP
Allen fell off the map in 2018, but he only had the one and a half dominant seasons. He’s a fastball-curveball guy who throws a ton of the latter (40%) and when one of the two aren’t working he’s in trouble. In ’18, it was the curveball.
The fastball has lost a little zip, too, however — down to 94 mph from 95.2 in 2016 — and the spin rate is down, also. Both, in combo with a loss in command, explain why Allen has struggled with the four-seamer recently (.516 SLGA, 11 HR).
But there’s a chance he IDs the issues and returns close to form. Ignoring the outlier season in ’16, Allen has always been a 1-1.5 WAR reliever and he could easily get back there, making him a bargain at two years and $18 million.
22. Joakim Soria, RHP
Soria just had his second best season by fWAR but I’d be concerned his secondaries have faded and batters are going to figure him out sooner than later.
He gets a lot of from his 92-94 mph fastball but has relied on a plus changeup he just didn’t have in 2018, and at 34 there’s no guarantee he’s getting it back.
Soria is more of a risk than most of the relievers on this list, but if the rest of the league sees it the same way, Seattle could be a two-year landing spot as a third reliever.
23. Nelson Cruz, DH
I wouldn’t close the door on Cruz returning to the Mariners, but to get a deal done this past summer would have cost the Mariners $38-40 million guaranteed over two seasons.
Even if the Twins and Rays are legitimately interested, as some have speculated, neither they nor the Astros are going to such levels to bring back Cruz, who finally showed signs of slowing down the second half of 2018.
If the Mariners can’t find a way to replace Cruz’s value to the club with a combo of players, payroll and roster flexibility, bringing him back for another year may be in order, but it won’t be for $20 million.
24. Garrett Richards, RHP
Richards isn’t likely to pitch at all in 2019 thanks to Tommy John surgery, and he’s been on the DL a ton in his career and has made just 28 starts since 2015.
But like the Tampa Bay Rays did with Nathan Eovaldi and the Chicago Cubs did with Drew Smyly, there’s value in rehabbing an arm with upside and Richards is another such opportunity.
When he’s healthy, Richards is No. 2 starter in stuff, No. 3 starter in command and consistency, but will flash as an ace with his power stuff, including a fastball up to 98mph and a plus slider.
A two-year deal similar to that of Smyly’s ($10m) makes some sense here.
Side Note: Richards could be the next starter-turned dominant reliever, and there’s a chance it helps him stay healthy. Something clubs may consider — a floor — in free agency.
25. Zach Britton, LHP
Britton isn’t going to get elite closer offers thanks to the injury issues that have clouded the past few seasons. His stuff wasn’t all the way back late in 2018, but he did show flashes of what he was in 2016.
If the 30-year-old’s market never develops, he may take a one-year prove-it deal somewhere, which strongly suggests Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, et al, but a three-year, $40 million offer might be too good to pass up for the lefty and that kind of deal could be out there.
26. Joe Kelly, RHP
Kelly helped his free agency with late-season and postseason performances that showed how valuable he can be as a multi-inning, high-leverage option.
His command still is below average but the fastball is legit 97-100 with life and he has three offspeed pitches that hover in the average range. The slider is the best of the three, but batters can’t sit on the heat.
Kelly’s likely to garner three-year offers, perhaps four, as a 31-year-old without a lot of wear and tear despite time as a starter, and he’s likely to get an AAV north of $10 million. He fits any club in baseball, offering more relief per-appearance for clubs without a deep rotation, but that’s going to cost.
27. Wilson Ramos, C
Ramos has had injury issues, but he’s the most complete catcher on the market. He has power, improved plate skills and is starting to work counts and draw more walks.
Problem is, the catcher market is slim pickins, per usual, and clubs that want more than a part-time catcher will pony up more dollars for more years than Seattle can possibly justify for even an even split timeshare with Mike Zunino, who probably is going to get one finals hot at being an average or better regular catcher before Seattle considers moving toward other options.
28. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP
Ryu has had injury issues but did post a 3.00 FIP in2 018 over 28 starts and 153 innings. Not many are talking about him and after Friday’s QO deadline, there won’t be much reason to in Seattle.
Ryu was tendered the QO by the Dodgers, meaning if the Mariners signed the 31-year-old to a deal he’s likely to command — perhaps three or four guaranteed years at $10-14 million per season — they’d also forfeit their 2019 second-round pick.
Ryu in a vacuum, isn’t all that different than Lynn or Happ in the short term. If the market collapses, perhaps Ryu could make some sense, but don’t hold your breath.
29. A.J. Pollock, CF
Pollock is a good player, but at 31 and a worrisome injury history, there’s tons of concern over a long-term deal. I still believe someone gives him four or five years, and that should not be the Mariners.
Pollock is solid in center now but isn’t likely to hold that for long, which puts a lot of pressure on the power to play in a corner. He’s more of a doubles bat than a home run guy outside of Arizona’s friendly confines.
He makes good contact and carries a career ,.338 OBP into 2019 but reduce the power and we’re talking about an average player, nothing more, nd one that may be less than in three years.
30. Gio Gonzalez, LHP
Gonzalez is now 33, has never had even average control and command the last two years has seen his 92-95 mph fastball dip to 89-92 with an average of 90.7.
As a result, his two-seamer was shellacked in 2018 and he lost the command of his curveball, once his bread and butter pitch he threw for strikes better than anything else. If he gets that back, he’s a No. 4 starter, otherwise there’s a huge risk he’s a No. 5 with no weapon to combat the modern game’s power play.
31. Brad Brach, RHP
Brach is 32, not a premium arm and struggled some versus left-handed batters in 2018, but he offers dominating stuff versus RHBs and isn’t likely to command more than two years and $12 million. It’s plausible he signs for less.
32. Devin Mesoraco, C
Mesoraco has one good season with the bat — 2014 with the Reds that produce a .359 OBP and 25 homers — but he’s sound enough at the plate and behind it to warrant half-time play. He’s 30 and has had trouble the past three years with velocity, but works counts, will draw walks and gives himself a chance.
Mesoraco isn’t a great framer (fringe-average or so) but is average or better at blocking, throwing and receiving.
A one-year deal for modest guarantees makes sense for Seattle, who lost Chris Herrmann , their best non-Zunino option, to waivers (HOU).
Jason A. Churchill
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